A year ago, a reader emailed me boasting of a new professional football team in Tulsa, the Oklahoma Thunder. A quick Google search and sure enough, the Thunder have rumbled onto the T-Town sports scene.
My cynical side jettisoned the opportunity to give the new organization publicity. After all, a professional football team outside of the National Football League was doomed to fail, right?
The Tulsa-based Oklahoma Thunder went undefeated in the World Football League and captured the championship last season. The WFL was home to six minor league football teams. This year, the league grew to 17 teams.
The original WFL started in 1972, the same year the Miami Dolphins constructed the last undefeated season. In 1973, the WFL signed Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick to contracts and, in essence, broke up the NFL powerhouse.
The league competed with the NFL and folded after two seasons. To this day, you mess with the NFL and you're doomed for failure.
Meet James Ashford. Ashford is the majority owner of the Thunder and sole proprietor of the WFL. He resuscitated the storied WFL. He does not suffer from delusional grandeur. There are no plans to compete head-to-head with America's most popular sports league.
"We brought the WFL back in 2008 as a minor league opportunity that did not compete with the NFL but in fact supports the NFL. We are like the Drillers to major league baseball," said Ashford. Next year could see as many as 30 franchises operating nationwide.
The Thunder... sounds familiar doesn't it? The name Thunder belonged to the WFL franchise. The NBA's Thunder owner, Clay Bennett, approached the WFL about naming rights.
"We basically signed a contract that gives them rights to use the name. It basically says we will not sue them. We have a good relationship with them," he said.
The WFL brags about using NFL rules. "We like to say we are full-size football. We say full-size football; size matters."
Last year the team played its home games at Booker T Washington. Between 750-1,000 fans showed up each game. The season, due to hurricanes, stretched into October.
Low fan turnout was dismissed as poor timing with stiff competition from OU, OSU and TU college football.
The Thunder ended up having one of the lowest fan turnouts league wide.
In a revelation of sorts, a home game was moved to Memorial Stadium last year due to a scheduling conflict. "Without any promotion of the game at all, 1,800 people showed up," he said. Sadly, there is a stigma associated with Booker T.
This year, Ashford hopes the move to Skiatook and Exchange Bank Stadium draws closer to 4,000 per home game. So far, the small town has embraced the team. Will city slickers trek 15 minutes north to watch Tulsa's newest minor league team?
During our chat, it was stressed that the level of football is high. Several local semipro teams ran their mouths last year. The thought was the Thunder was no better than a semipro football team.
A preseason contest was scheduled to find out who was correct. "At halftime we had them 73-0. There's a major difference between semipro and minor league," said Ashford.
The league scouts players the same as the NFL. Scouting combine, college recruiting trips and pro days are utilized. The league hopes to set a foundation of being the feeder system to the NFL. The players didn't quite make it to the next level or played in the NFL but that phase of their career is over.
Prentice Elliot, Kejuan Jones and Willie Ponder are a few of the names you're probably familiar with. These are the exact players the WFL wants on the field.
Take Elliot for example. The OSU Cowboys pariah has NFL talent but his mental prep failed him. "Prentice is perfect for us because we're all about second chances.
"We've got Prentice under contract and Prentice is working on the field with the coaches and off the field with a local pastor to try and get his head right to think and deal with difficult situations," Ashford said.
Another local castoff is Kejuan Jones. He was the cats meow at OU until a hamstring and a guy they call AD derailed his career. Now, the WFL welcomes him with open arms.
The player's pay scale is undetermined for the most part. With the league still in its infantile stages, fixed salaries would be a mistake. The players are part owners of the team. As the league earns, so do the players.
Ashford's vision is undeniable. He sees a day when 72 teams across the nation compete in the WFL. He's hoping it fills the football thirst until college and the NFL pick back up in the fall. Perhaps the NFL recognizes the talent and they can form a working relationship.
A television deal is in place. KWHB Tulsa and Cox cable channel 7 will air the games on a one-hour delay. Preseason games take place the next few weeks with the regular season kicking off May 23 on the road.
Skepticism aside, the team and league may interest many people for several different reasons.
Perhaps you love football and need a quick fix. Maybe you're curious what several former local players are up to these days. Possibly, you just want to witness a Tulsa minor league franchise vie for a title again.
If you are interested, check out www.oklahomathunderfootball.com for more information.
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